August 23rd, 2014
07:14 PM ET
Opinion by the Rev. Fred D. Robinson, special to CNN
(CNN) – On day five after the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of police, I was on the phone with a white Christian and fellow preacher concerning the racial cauldron that has become Ferguson, Missouri.
During our conversation, he spent more time decrying rioting and calling for calm and prayer than lamenting the modern-day lynching by law enforcement of innocent black bodies that are piling up across the nation.
But most frustrating was his solution to the racial powder keg that has produced the Fergusons across the nation: a call for more racially diverse churches.
I get tired of that one. His unrelenting insistence reminded me — in the most stark terms — of James Baldwin’s prophetic quip: “Racial progress in America is measured by how fast I become white.”
Simply having diverse congregations without addressing the weightier matters of social justice and structural racism is not better church practice. It is possibly subterfuge.
During Princeton Theological Seminary’s 2014 Black Theology and Leadership Institute, of which I was a fellow, Dr. John Kinney, a professor of theology at Virginia Union, offered this stinging indictment:
If one is not careful, that is exactly what will be achieved in today’s climate of multiracial churches.
In their book, “Blacks and White in Christian America,” Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson point out that there have been two waves of reconciliation movements in America aimed at integrating the church.
The first wave, which occurred during the 1960s, was rejected by the white church because “it was too structural in orientation.” In other words, it challenged structures in America that kept racism in place.
The second wave, of more recent vintage, has been rejected mostly by black theologians and preachers (certainly not by all) because it is perceived as “too individualist and cultural in orientation.”
In other words, it occurs in a context that places no attention on structural racism.
It is a can’t-we-all-just-get-along-model that sweeps the issues of structural injustice under the rug.
Such a model allows us to feel good about our diverse congregations while nothing meaningful is being done to make significant changes in society.
It ignores the fact that we have to do more than call sinners to repentance, we have to call societies, systems and structures to repentance as well.
Indeed, simply baptizing an institution in diversity—whether they are churches, the police force or corporate America — without transforming the injustice on which the institution is built, doesn’t make it holy.
No — it just makes it integrated injustice. John Wesley was right about one thing when he penned this line: “The Bible knows no holiness except social holiness.”
To end situations that are happening in Ferguson will require more than a re-coloring of the pews.
Could it be that through persistent poverty and societal brokenness God is screaming at the church? Challenging us? Waiting on us?
Overcoming unjust systems through personal success and hard work (which has become the cornerstone of much of white, evangelical theology) is not God’s main desire: transforming structural evil is.
To my friend’s call for prayer, I say “yes, pray we must!” But I also reminded him of the words of William Sloan Coffin: “It is not enough to resist with confession; we must confess with resistance.”
And a good place for that resistance to start is with a deconstruction of our theology, a theology that has been shaped more by the economic interests of America than by Christ.
Otherwise—should greater church integration ever come—it will sadly be into a burning house.
The Rev. Fredrick D. Robinson, a Baptist preacher, is working on a master's degree in Christian thought at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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